WINTERVAL 3. TERCENTENARY MEDLEY

Villagers in churchyard. Steel-engraving 1858

  As the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth falls on December 26th, it
  seems the right moment for LUPO to round up a parcel of pieces which
  have somehow so far missed publication and take the famous elegy as a
  peg on which to hang today's graveyard reflections, or, in one case,
  grave-robbing ruminations. The resulting collection is probably best dipped
  into rather than swallowed at a sitting lest the contemplation of the fate of
  the modern churchyard sees Melancholy marking you for her own.

  Elegy in a Country Churchyard

  Far from the frantic city’s busy hum
  A country churchyard quite devoid of fuss:
  A country poet perched upon his bum
  Awaits a desultory country bus.

  His annals are not purged of all adventures:
  The village whore is waiting in the vault.
  The village idiot, chumbling to his dentures,
  Ponders which village children to assault.

  The gibbering banshee who was born in sin
  Flits through the twilight at the tolling bell.
  The rural dean who did his mother in
  Dances with skirling devils down to Hell.

  The whistling ploughboy perished from the pox.
  The squire and his lady died of drink.
  Sarcoptic mange has slain the rural fox.
  There’s more to country churchyards than you think.

  John Whitworth            

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  The Twenty-First Century Elegy

  A car alarm starts up two streets away;
  a teenage gang collects outside the gate.
  The metal shutters fall on Hair Today
  while Booze 'n' That prepares to open late.

  Now strobe the flickering street-lights on the road
  and Full-Strength cans are rolling in the grass.
  The pizza franchise breathes its fumes abroad
  and drivers toss out fag-ends as they pass.

  Behind the brambles tangled round these stones
  the marker of each earthly life is sprayed.
  Four-letter epithets define the bones:
  our rude forefathers are yet ruder made.

  Here all lie equal and though Youth's desires,
  writ large, besmirch the present and offend,
  they know that after life and lust's fierce fires
  they all must join those named here in the end.

  D.A. Prince

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  The plots are overgrown; thick nettles crowd
  The stones, eroded now and lichen-pocked
  And all askew, that once stood clean and proud.
  The church is almost permanently locked.

  A curate comes one Sunday out of four
  To spread the word of God as best she can,
  And speak the bounteousness of heaven’s store
  To four old women who’d prefer a man.

  Townies have bought the cottages; their names
  Are not those carved upon these crumbling stones.
  They’ve more to do than fret that time reclaims
  This ground so tightly packed with peasant bones.

  Their young, though, come here of a summer night
  To smoke, to cuss each other, and to brag,
  To neck strong cider, and, when somewhat tight,
  Among the unkempt graves enjoy a shag.

  George Simmers

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  This country churchyard leaves me quite depressed.
  I pause to read a marble-carved entreaty:
  “Pray for the soul of J . . . ” Alas, the rest
  Has been obliterated by graffiti.

  The air is still beneath the darkening sky –
  Or would be, were it not for traffic honking
  Along the motorway they’ve built nearby,
  And that young couple, vocal in their bonking.

  Now, underfoot, the heaps of broken glass,
  Used condoms, bottles, pizzas half-consumed,
  Spent needles, empty cans, befoul the grass
  That once adorned the graves of those entombed.

  Hoping to rest in peace the day we die,
  This spot would earn our posthumous thanksgiving,
  A pleasant place, indeed, in which to lie –
  But for the depredations of the living.

  Brian Allgar

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  Graveyard

  Here in this pleasant place, the shade of yews
  Still fencing in this gathering of bones,
  The headstones are propped up in ones and twos
  Against the ancient walls like backs of thrones,

  And where they first were placed the grass is mown,
  The undulations flattened to a green,
  And none can tell which buried bodies own
  The space, or where the mounds of graves have been.

  But on this green the evidence remains
  Of recent visitation, spliff ends spread
  Amongst discarded needles, potent stains
  Of hopeless humans poised to join the dead.

  I wonder – did they read the stones around −
  The family of seven where T. B.
  Had cut them down in just four years? The ground
  Now seems to sigh for crass humanity.

  Katie Mallett

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  Elegy in a country churchyard

  The spire looks like so many of its kind
  That punctuate the hamlets of this land,
  And all around on every grassy mound
  Grey gravestones to the great and lowly stand.

  There’s Albert Fagge, the Private who is missed
  By heirs from whom no flowers mark his grave,
  And Major Hay, who in the First World War
  Was asked to give his life, and gladly gave.

  He has a verse proclaiming he’s called home
  Back to the arms of God, in florid script.
  For Albert Fagge, a badly-chiselled slab
  Spells out his name and rank, one letter chipped.

  Could Albert read? And did the Major seem
  Another Cromwell in the fields of France?
  They’re gone. But to their solitary graves
  The snowdrops make their annual advance.

  Gillian Southgate

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  The Sexton’s Postscript

  It’s time to sickle graveyard weeds once more −
  the plots are restless judging by complaints
  from grievers plodding to their weary chore
  with flowers, coins, and figurines of saints.

  I think it’s how the curfewed dead come back,
  as bindweed, ivy, and forget-me-nots;
  they’re mute, their skeletons won’t even clack,
  but they can upthrust weeds from coffined cots.

  The coltsfoot is the ploughman’s silent plea;
  the housewives' − iris, daisy, violet;
  inglorious Miltons utter bryony;
  and swains, with bittercress, express regret.

  I cut each bramble wreath and nettle crown,
  replacing stings and prickles from the dead
  with falling honesty and thistledown,
  and calm the insomniac hamlet in its bed.

  John Beaton  

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  Gray's Anatomy

  The shadows fall, 'neath canopy of yew,
  A half-light that befriends us – Hare and Burke.
  This churchyard is the place where we pursue
  A dying trade that brings us gainful work.

  Within these hallowed walls which time has blest
  We source our products, gift-wrapped in a box,
  We mourn those robbed of their eternal rest
  Then send them down the road to Dr Knox.

  We hover by the ivy-covered gate
  And when we see a cortege in the lane
  We seize our spades, then bow our heads and wait;
  Honour the dead, then dig them up again.

  This sacred place where the departed lie
  Brings comfort to their loved ones by the grave,
  Yet when we find demand exceeds supply
  We'll offer them the closure that they crave.

  Sylvia Fairley

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  Anti-Elegy

  A place for epitaphs on ancient stones
  With modern fitments also to be found –
  Seats for the elderly to rest their bones
  Before they join the others underground.

  But, death be damned, the plot is all alive!
  Rain-dancing gulls charm worms up from below;
  Goldfinches, weed-seed twittering, now thrive.
  Among hay-meadow flora’s gaudy show.

  Then, as the light withdraws and evening hushes,
  There comes the turn of hedgehogs, foxes, voles
  And bats replace the daytime’s wrens and thrushes
  While owls emerge to start their night-patrols.

  Churchgoers few, but churchyard users? Lots!
  As farmland’s future prospects grow opaquer
  Its wildlife flees to less polluted spots
  Perhaps to find salvation in God’s acre.

  Jerome Betts

Cottages, sheep, village green, church. Steel-engraving 1858